By Sgt. Walter LowellAugust 4, 2017
VAVA'U, Tonga - Twisted ankles, severe dehydration, and even a bite from a gigantic Golden Orb Weaver spider were just a few of the maladies a medical team from the Nevada Air Guard treated here on this remote island 200 miles away from the nearest hospital during Exercise Tafakula, a biennial, multi-national military exercise hosted by the Kingdom of Tonga in late July.
The medical team participated in the exercise under the auspice of the National Guard's State Partnership Program. The team of four medics was requested by Tongan officials to provide medical support for the two-week exercise and to evaluate the medical readiness of His Majesty's Armed Forces, the military defense force of the Kingdom of Tonga.
The SPP is the National Guard-sponsored program that partners individual states with countries around the world. Its overarching mission is to improve international security and the disaster-response capability of partner nations as well as spread cultural awareness and refine military interoperability between the U.S armed forces and its allies.
"The SPP and the Kingdom of Tonga co-hosted events on two separate islands and included HMAF, the New Zealand Defense Force, the French Army of New Caledonia and the United States Marine Corps," said Col. Martin Bain, the commander of the Nevada Air Guard's 152nd Medical Group and ranking member of the team. He said the activities focused on life-saving skills, medical evaluations and real-world medical support for the multi-nation exercise.
The Air Guard's medical team worked closely with HMAF and partner countries to evaluate the medical services proficiency of Tongan Soldiers.
"They don't have a medical corps, so their medical training was almost nonexistent," said 2nd Lt. Erica Steele, a critical care nurse in the 152nd Medical Group. "They had very basic lifesaver skills."
"We didn't have all the medical supplies we had hoped for, but we ended up making do by incorporating things that Tongans would be able to use if they were not given modern medical materials," said Staff Sgt. Makaila Erdody, a cardiopulmonary respiratory therapist from the 152nd Medical Group.
"We were able to make an initial assessment of the medical capabilities of the Tongan forces and forge a road forward for progress and the development of their capabilities," Bain said.
"The Tongans deploy to Afghanistan. They perform disaster relief within their own kingdom. Any force, small or large, should have the knowledge to help its own if someone gets hurt," Steele said.
After the first portion of the medical exercise concluded on the main island of Tongatapu, the multi-national task force of more than 300 then traveled to the island of Vava'u to conduct military maneuvers under a joint-nation command that included Nevada Guard SPP officials. Vava'u is the most northern, major land mass in the island chain nation of Tonga.
"We provided medical support for multinational forces as they conducted Exercise Tafakula," Erdody said. "One of the main challenges we had working with this diverse group of people was obviously the language barrier with the Tongans and the French."
The exercise ended with no major injuries or medical emergencies recorded.
"In general, the treatment by the Tongans was excellent," Erdody said. "They were respectful, would go out of their way to help anyone, were very eager to learn and were a great group of people."
"They treated me like a professional and an officer," Steele said.
She said that the Tongans hold the state of Nevada and the National Guard in high regard. After the exercise, she noted the medical knowledge of HMAF had expanded as well as the Tongans' interest in the medical field.
"The medical corps has the ability to cross cultural and language barriers in a way many of our military counterparts can't always do," Bain said.
"I couldn't be more proud of my team," he said. "They were professional and outgoing. I believe they were great ambassadors, not only for the state of Nevada, but also the entire United States' armed forces."